Sword paused on the path below the pavilion, an empty jug in his hand. Standing a few yards past the brewer’s house that marked the end of the village’s central cluster of homes, he leaned forward, listening.
He thought at first it might just be an echo of someone speaking up in the pavilion, that rambling ridgetop structure that served as the village’s communal storehouse and gathering place, but the direction was wrong even for an echo. In all the years he had lived here, all the hundreds of times he had walked this path, he had never before encountered such an auditory illusion.
Then he thought he might be imagining it, or hearing spirit voices rather than anything physical, but no, he could definitely hear something happening far ahead, off to the left, in the trees—not in the pavilion or anywhere else in the village lands, but in the trees beyond the edge of town. It wasn’t birds, he was sure, nor squirrels chittering. There were several voices speaking, real ones, human ones, and much rustling and thrashing.
He frowned, wondering what that was about. There weren’t any homes or fields down that way; the town of Mad Oak ended at the boundary shrine a hundred yards ahead, and the sounds were coming from somewhere well beyond that, in the wilderness.
The voices were human and male, but he had no idea what men would be doing out there. The old path to Willowbank ran through that general area, but no one used it anymore, not since the guide had retired. Even when the Willowbank Guide had been working, no one would have been thrashing about like that. The local ler, the spirits of that particular bit of forest, were not likely to appreciate such a disturbance. Ler that had made their accommodation with humanity would tolerate it, and a man could generally rattle about in town without worrying about angering the spirit of each branch he brushed aside, or each blade of grass he trod upon, but out in the wild beyond the border the spirits were not so forgiving. Anyone venturing out there was likely to find thorns embedding themselves in his legs, branches lashing at his eyes, and the entire natural world in general trying to kill him.
So who was making all that noise?
Sword looked down at the jug in his hand, and at his empty belt. If he had been wearing his sword he might have decided to investigate, but he had just been going up to Brewer’s storeroom under the pavilion to fetch a gallon of beer. He hadn’t seen any reason to go armed. He had his silver talisman in his pocket, as he always did, but had not his sword, nor any ara feathers to ward off hostile magic; he could almost certainly survive a little jaunt into the wilderness, but it might be unpleasant.
“What’s happening?” someone asked from behind him. “Sword, do you know?”
“No,” Sword replied. “I don’t think it’s anything to do with me.” He turned to discover that half a dozen townsfolk had heard the commotion as he had, and had emerged from their homes to peer into the underbrush beyond the boundary, trying to make out what was going on.
“They’re coming closer.” Sword knew the woman who said that as Curly.
“Yes, they are,” he agreed. He realized that the others were all watching him expectantly, and he sighed. He knew that they thought that exploring this phenomenon was somehow his responsibility.
Being one of the Chosen, the eight magical defenders of Barokan, was not supposed to mean that he had to check out every potentially dangerous oddity that might happen along, but convincing his fellow townsfolk of that seemed to be impossible. They seemed to feel that if they had a hero living among them, they were entitled to see heroics.
“I’ll get my sword,” he said. He resisted the temptation to say anything about the beer; after all, he could fetch that any time.
He turned and trotted back through the village to the little house he shared with his mother and younger sisters, where he set the still-empty jug on the kitchen table and fetched his sword belt from the peg by the door. He buckled it in place, making sure the blade was loose in its sheath, then hurried back out, through the village square and along the path below the pavilion.
A score of the townsfolk had gathered at the boundary stone and were staring out into the forest, though none set so much as a toe beyond the marker. Much rustling, thumping, and unintelligible conversation could still be heard out in the wild. Whatever was making the noise seemed to have come a little closer.
As Sword neared the group one of his childhood friends, a big fellow called Brokenose, said, “They’ve been calling, but we haven’t answered. We were waiting for you.”
“Thank you,” Sword said sourly, and not at all sincerely. He remembered why he and Brokenose didn’t spend much time together anymore as he peered out into the trees. Sword was fairly certain he glimpsed movement, though he was not sure what he was seeing. “Has anyone told Priest or the priestesses?”
“Younger Priestess is fetching Elder Priestess from the northern fields,” said a man called Flute. “Priest is still ill.”
“Ill” was a euphemism. Old Priest was dying, and everyone in Mad Oak knew it, though not all were willing to admit it. “I know he’s ill,” Sword said. “He should still be told.”
“Won’t the ler tell him?” Curly asked.
“Maybe,” Sword acknowledged.
“Ho, the village!” came a distant cry. “Can’t you hear us?”
Several people turned expectant faces toward Sword, who raised his hands to either side of his mouth. “We hear you!” he shouted back. “Who are you?”
There was a mutter of what might have been cheering, and then a voice called, “We’ll explain when we get there!”
That triggered a round of murmuring, and Sword sighed again.
“Are you sure we should let them get here?” Curly asked.
“I’ll go see who they are,” Sword said, and with a hand on his sword hilt he marched down the slope.
He paused at the boundary shrine, knelt briefly, and said, “I thank you, spirits of my homeland, and pray that I may return safely to your protection.” Then he rose and stepped past, into the wilderness.
He could feel the change instantly as he left behind the familiar, accepting ler of his village and stepped into the territory of the wild ler that dwelt outside human bounds. The air seemed suddenly hot and hostile, rather than warm and comforting. The gentle breeze turned harsh. Weeds tore at his trousers.
Most people in Mad Oak would never have dared to set foot beyond the shrine without a guide and the protection of ara feathers, but Sword, as one of the Chosen, was immune to most magic. Wild ler might harass him, but were unlikely to do him any serious harm. Except for the bloodthirsty Mad Oak itself, up on the ridgetop to the southwest, he did not think anything near the village posed a real threat to him, and even that terrible old tree had failed to lure him in the one time he had gotten close to it. Putting his hand on the hilt of his sword had been enough to alert the ler that protected him and break the oak’s spell.
He kept a hand on his sword’s hilt, just in case, as he marched boldly down into the birch grove.
He did not have to go far; as soon as he passed the first line of undergrowth that bordered the grove he could see the strangers, fifty yards away among the birches. There were at least a dozen of them, all big men in matching attire. They wore broad-brimmed, cloth-covered helmets crowned with ara feathers, and despite the heat they were clad in thick quilted jackets and leggings striped with dense rows of ara feathers—jackets and leggings that showed signs of hard use, with hundreds of little slashes and tears, patches of mud and smears of green, thorns and briars everywhere. The feathers were crumpled and broken in many places.
Clearly, these men were not appeasing the wild ler, nor dodging them, as a guide might, but were simply bulling their way through, relying on their strange clothing to protect them from lashing branches, stabbing thorns, and the claws and teeth of small animals. Heavy leather gloves held sticks and shovels and machetes, and the men were hacking and digging their way through the undergrowth. The damage to their protective clothing made it clear that the undergrowth and its ler had not yielded without a fight.
Sword had never seen anything like this before, nor heard of such a thing. The people of Barokan had always respected ler, always tried to cooperate with the spirits of the land and sky and forest. Every town and village had made accommodations with its own ler, usually through a priesthood that negotiated with them, and the land between the scattered communities had been left alone.
Until now. These men were clearly not leaving the wilderness alone.
Sword kept walking into the birch grove, watching the men intently. He didn’t recognize any of them. None were from Mad Oak, nor were any of them guides he knew.
This whole scene was unspeakably bizarre. Whole gangs of men simply did not venture into the wilderness like this, and ordinarily nobody would tear up the natural landscape in such a brutal fashion, so utterly heedless of the ler. The normal thing to do would be to either try to slip through without disturbing the ler, or to appease them as best one could, but these men appeared to be deliberately antagonizing the wilderness spirits.
“Who are you?” Sword demanded, as soon as the strangers noticed his approach.
The slashing, chopping, and shoveling stopped as the entire party turned to look at him. “The Wizard Lord’s road crew,” one of them called back. “Who are you, coming out here unguarded?”
“I’m called Sword,” Sword replied. “What do you mean, road crew?”
“Sword? The Swordsman? Really?” Several voices spoke at once, as the entire party lowered their tools and turned to stare.
“The Swordsman, yes.” Sword drew his weapon and let it hang loosely in his hand. “Now, who are you people, and what are you doing here?”
“He told you, we’re a road crew,” a man called. He reached up and doffed his helmet, revealing sweat-matted hair and a long, half-healed slash across his forehead that seemed to indicate that at least one ler had put up resistance. “We’re cutting a road through from Willowbank to Mad Oak.”
Sword blinked and lowered his blade further. “Cutting a road?”
“That’s right. You don’t have a guide for this route anymore, so we’re cutting a road, and if it’s properly maintained you won’t need a guide, ever again.”
Sword struggled for a moment with this concept.
He knew that in the Midlands the towns were often so close together that they were connected by broad roads, wide enough for two carts to pass, where no guide was needed to protect travelers from the untamed ler of the wilderness; he had been there, and seen it for himself. But that was in the Midlands, where one town was only rarely separated from the next by more than a mile, and where the land between was as likely to be open grassland as forest. There were no open roads in Longvale, where a good ten miles of thick woods and marshland divided Mad Oak from Willowbank; there were only narrow, winding paths that required a skilled guide to navigate safely.
Or rather, there had been only narrow, dangerous paths until now. Looking past the self-proclaimed “road crew,” Sword could see that they had indeed cut a broad, straight path through the forest—a strip of bare, sun-dappled brown earth stretching away as far as he could see, with mounds of chopped greenery lining either side. He could smell the rich scent of fresh soil, an odor he associated with fields, rather than forests.
Bits of leaf fluttered about those side mounds in ways that had nothing to do with the faint breeze that found its way through the birches, and little glimmers of light and color moved through them where no sunlight could reach; the ler of the plants and other things that had been cleared away were obviously still active, and struggling to respond to the disruption of their home.
The road itself, though, seemed clear and untroubled. Sword pointed at it. “That goes all the way to Willowbank?”
“Indeed it does,” said the man who had first told him he faced a road crew, glancing proudly back over his shoulder. “Oh, it’s not all as straight as that, as we had to route it around the bogs, but it’s a good road. And before that we cut a road from Rock Bridge to Willowbank, and from Broadpool to Rock Bridge.”
“We did. And if the other crews have done their jobs, you can now walk from here all the way to Winterhome without a guide, so long as you stay on the road and wear a few feathers.”
That was more than Sword could comprehend all at once. “Winterhome?”
“Winterhome. That’s where the Wizard Lord lives, after all.”
Sword nodded. “Of course,” he agreed.
He had heard that the current Wizard Lord had chosen Winterhome as his home. He had vaguely wondered why, since he knew the Wizard Lord was not a native of Winterhome, but he had not pursued the matter. After all, a Wizard Lord could live anywhere in Barokan that he chose; if the current one wanted to live at the foot of the Eastern Cliffs, in the town where the Uplanders wintered, that was his business, and none of Sword’s concern.
But Winterhome had to be a hundred miles away. Could there really be a highway all the way there, through all that wilderness? He stared at the road.
After a moment’s awkward silence, the apparent crew chief turned and called, “All right, now, we have work to do! We want this cut through to Mad Oak while it’s still light—with luck we’ll dance with the girls in the town’s pavilion tonight!”
A murmur of agreement sounded. The men lifted their tools and resumed hacking at the underbrush, extending their road through the birch grove.
Sword shifted his gaze from the road vanishing into the forest to the hands swinging machetes and hoes. He stared for a moment, then turned without another word and headed back to town.
This was all strange and new, and he had no idea how to react to it, but it did not seem to call for hostility. The road crew was not breaking any laws, so far as he knew. It was not customary to disturb all those wild ler, but there was no formal stricture forbidding it. As long as the men stopped at the boundary shrine, and did nothing to upset the town’s own ler, there was no obvious reason to interfere.
Besides, Sword had no real authority in Mad Oak; he wasn’t a priest. He would go back and let the rest of the town decide what to do.
As he neared the boundary he could see a score of his townsfolk waiting for him just beyond the shrine—not just those who had been there before, but more. Elder and Younger Priestess had joined the party, and looked unhappy; the sigils of office on their foreheads seemed to be pulsing and glowing red, rather than their usual pale and steady gold. Sword waved to them to indicate that all was well, but he was not actually sure that was true.
“What’s happening?” Younger Priestess called. “The ler are upset!”
“They’re building a road,” Sword called back. “All the way to . . . to Willowbank.”
The priestesses exchanged glances; then Elder called, “They’re doing what?”
“Building a road,” Sword repeated, though he was close enough to the border now that he no longer needed to shout. “They’re clearing a path through the wilderness, so we won’t need guides anymore.”
“Can they do that? What about all the ler?” Younger Priestess asked. Her hand reached up to rub at her forehead.
Sword shrugged. “The men don’t appear to be having any real problems. A few cuts and scratches. They’re wearing protective clothing and carrying ara feathers.”
“They are disturbing the ler, though,” Elder said. “Many, many ler. We can hear them.”
“And feel them,” Younger added.
Sword glanced over his shoulder at the flashing machetes and thumping shovels. “They don’t seem to care.”
“Well, they don’t need to live here!” Younger exclaimed. “Those are our ler . . .”
“No,” Elder said thoughtfully. “They aren’t.” She looked at Sword. “They’ll stop at the border?”
“I assume so. One of them said something about dancing in our pavilion tonight. I don’t think they mean us any harm, nor anything in Mad Oak.”
“They’re disrupting many spirits, though—earth and leaf and tree. And those won’t just quietly vanish.”
The light and movement in those mounds alongside the road had told Sword as much. “What will they do?” he asked, genuinely curious. “I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
The priestess frowned. “Well, they’ll dissipate eventually—a ler like that without a home, without a solid object to bind it to our world, fades away in time.”
“Not all ler are tied to objects, though,” Sword protested, looking down at the sword in his hand.
“The ler of the land are,” Elder said. “Any ler a priest can deal with is. The so-called higher ler, the abstract ler, they’re the domain of wizards, not priests, and I doubt they’re being disturbed by this. These men aren’t defying wind or fire or strength or warmth or any of those, they’re uprooting branch and stalk, and turning earth.”
“So the disturbed ler will dissipate . . .”
“Eventually. But until then they’ll strike out in any way they can. They’ll form into misshapen ghosts to strike at their attackers, they’ll look for things they can possess, new homes they can claim.”
“But the men are protected,” Sword said. “They’re wearing ara feathers, and good sturdy clothes.”
“Then they may be safe enough, but I won’t walk that road they’re building any time soon. And I think we may want to keep a close watch on the livestock and the children for the next few days, and be wary of bad dreams.” She looked Sword in the eye. “Did they say who began this? Whose idea it was, to battle the natural order in this way?”
“The Wizard Lord,” Sword said. “The Lord of Winterhome.”
“Ah,” Elder said. For a moment no one spoke; then she added, “Do you think you may need to kill him?”
The question was not as bizarre as it might seem, and Sword took it very seriously. The Wizard Lord was selected by the other wizards of Barokan, the so-called Council of Immortals, to rule over all the land from the Eastern Cliffs to the Western Isles, and was given great magical power to do so. The Wizard Lord controlled the weather, and had power over wind and fire, over disease, and over many of the beasts of the wilderness. He was empowered to serve as judge and executioner of any wizard who misbehaved, and any criminal who fled from the towns into the wild.
And as a check on the dangers of such great power, eight ordinary people were chosen to take up special roles and receive limited magical powers of their own, and it was the duty of these eight to remove any Wizard Lord who proved himself unfit for his high office.
Sword, the Swordsman, was one of the Chosen. The silver talisman he always carried in his pocket bound him to the ler of muscle and steel and ensured that he was the world’s greatest swordsman, unbeatable in single combat. In the past, when Wizard Lords had gone bad, it was usually the Swordsmen of the time who eventually slew them.
This particular Swordsman had thought the job was ceremonial when he first accepted it, as more than a century had passed without any known misbehavior by a Wizard Lord, but that long streak of good fortune had already been broken once. Several years ago Sword had struck down the Dark Lord of the Galbek Hills with a single blow to the heart.
But that Wizard Lord had slaughtered a village; this one was merely building roads. How could building roads be a crime punishable by death? Yes, it disturbed the natural order, but who did it really harm?
And if the Wizard Lord had not gone mad, and was not harming anyone, nor trying to exceed the powers allotted him, then he was not a Dark Lord and did not need to be removed. The Chosen were not responsible for maintaining order, but only for ridding Barokan of Dark Lords.
Elder was waiting for a reply.
“I hope not,” Sword said. “I very much hope not.”
Copyright © 2007 by Lawrence Watt-Evan. All rights reserved.